13 February ~ When I was a kid I went to cubs. Our leader was a strange man, whose fondness for tales of the Boer War often struggled to connect with seven-year-old boys. Stranger still – to prepubescent, Shoot-reading minds at least – he liked football but didn’t support a team. “What team do you support?” we’d ask. “I support football,” he’d reply. I spent years wondering what he meant. In fact it only clicked into place recently, around about the time the plight of Leyton FC trickled into my consciousness.
Last month the endlessly repackaged non-League outfit resigned from Division One North of the Ryman League, after being suspended since December 1 for failing to pay the second tranche of their subs. Then last week the Ryman board, concerned that Leyton director Louise Sophocleous’s request to allow the Under-18 team to remain in the youth league wasn’t really a resignation at all, called for an Extraordinary General Meeting on February 20 to put a Special Resolution to all members that Leyton FC be expelled. Both facts would suggest the end of the road for London’s second oldest existing club (formed four years earlier in 1860, only Cray Wanderers are older).
Leyton FC have been here before and theirs is an extraordinary story, even by non-League standards. It takes in four reformations, a High Court battle over a dispute regarding the right to the club’s history and a VAT fraud case that led to the imprisonment the club’s chairman, Louise’s father Costas, in 2008. The Twohundredpercent blog has a history of the club's complicated journey more thorough than space allows here, yet the statement on the club’s website remains telling: “The future of the club is up in the air and only time will tell what the outcome will be – but with no football being played it doesn’t look good.”
The club played at the Leyton Stadium, less than a mile from where I watch their neighbours, Orient, at Leyton’s pre-1937 home Brisbane Road. The Lillywhites’ situation hasn’t been reported much beyond the local press, attuned blogs and the like. On the other hand LOFC and their home have seen unprecedented goodwill, thanks to the news it is fellow East Enders West Ham who will be moving from the Boleyn Ground into the Olympic Stadium, just another mile away again.
All of which may make you think that E10 is some sort of football Mecca – but it's far from that. The Leyton Stadium holds 4,000. Leyton FC’s last match saw 45 people turn up. Brisbane Road holds 9,271 but averages around half of that, while God knows how West Ham plan to fill 60,000 seats. Even without bringing nearby Dagenham & Redbridge into the equation, the supply and demand for football in east London is askew. Orient fans have begun galvanising their voices in opposition to West Ham’s planned move into their catchment area, concerned of the impact on their club. But there’s part of me that wishes I’d made more of a fuss about the problems facing the little team down the road too. I’d always intended to go when time would allow. The ground looked a bit like some swimming baths for one thing.
Despite their geographical familiarity, Leyton Orient and Leyton FC have little to do with one another. The facts would suggest there’s not enough interest in football in the era to support the number of clubs there, even without West Ham expanding and with its oldest team folding. What remains is clubs foraging for scraps within a location not passionate about local football, when they could be fostering supportive links between each other. This may suggest ideas like community schemes and big brother looking after little via friendly matches but the alternative is an emerging football wasteland. It’s this that makes me think of my strange old cub leader and his strange proclamation. Not of the Boer war, but fans supporting football with the passion they do their team. Maybe it's time to be less tribal.
Nothing would benefit football more than clubs being less self-serving, but I can’t think of in many cases more than in E10. If Leyton FC do cease to be, there will be 45 fans disappointed. There will be a much bigger number if any of the area's other clubs follow suit. James McMahon